Nothing gets people more excited than the prospect of adventure, be it jetting off for a luxe island vacation or scaling mountains. We sit down with travel photographer Aaron Santos and find out more about the stories behind his photos that is sure to inspire anyone to travel.
EOS 5D Mark II, EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens, f/7.1, 16mm, 1/100sec, ISO800
A butler at the Six Senses Con Dao resort in southern Vietnam overlooks a green, mountainous landscape off the resort's grounds. Once a secluded prison island, Con Dao is now turning into a luxury tourism destination.
EOS 5D Mark II, EF35mm f/1.4L II USM lens, f/1.4, 35mm, 1/8000sec, ISO50
A Masai warrior overlooks an epic desert landscape in the early morning hours in Kenya.
Hi Aaron, tell us a little about yourself.
My name is Aaron Joel Santos and I’m an American photographer living and working throughout the Asia-Pacific region. I tend to collect small film cameras, photo books, and random scraps of paper from my travels. I also love eating pretty much everything except yellow squash.
In terms of photography, I strive for a nice balance between freeform and very rigid compositions in my images. I think a little duality goes a long way: grit and grime mixed with glitz and glamour. At its best, I want my photography to inspire people to travel places, but I also want it to retain a bit of mystery. Think paradise through a hazy mirror, or a distant memory you’re struggling to recall.
I moved to Southeast Asia in late 2007, but I started working as a travel photographer in earnest around 2010. It took a while to gain traction and clients and to find a voice of my own in the industry.
EOS 6D, EF35mm f/1.4L II USM lens, f/1.4, 35mm, 1/1600sec, ISO125
A young woman and a small temple in Ninh Binh, Vietnam.
Did you know you were always going to be a photographer?
Definitely not. The first time I picked up a camera during my teenage years, I remember feeling extremely frustrated by it. It felt too smart for me (or me too dumb for it). I went to school for literature and writing, and only years later returned to study photography. I’m quite happy to have come by it when I did though; any earlier and I may not have been mature enough to actually make a career of it.
EOS 6D, EF35mm f/1.4L II USM lens, f/1.4, 35mm, 1/400sec, ISO50
Crystal clear waters and white sand beaches on Guam island.
Of all the genres, what inspired you to get into travel photography?
Southeast Asia is quite compact and traveling here is relatively cheap, safe and easy. In school, I studied mostly fine art and editorial photography, so when I arrived in Asia I had to kind of reassess what I wanted to shoot. I tended somewhat naturally towards travel photography. I’ve always been drawn to portraits and somewhat serene landscapes and I think those two things were the first building blocks of my travel portfolios.
EOS 5D Mark II, EF16-35 f/2.8L II USM lens, f/8, 23mm, 1/1600sec, ISO400
A young man gets splashed by a waterfall in Koh Kong, Cambodia.
Do you travel a lot outside of work?
I’m generally on the road 2-3 weeks out of every month on various assignments, but whenever I have free time I love to travel to new places and seek new adventures. My work only takes me so far and it’s usually centered around a very specific theme in a very specific locale, so when I travel on my own I like it to be a bit looser, a bit wilder.
What do you hope to communicate with your images?
At their best, I think travel images have a great opportunity to show us empathy, hope, beauty and adventure and everything in between, all wrapped up in a pretty little picture.
EOS 6D, EF24mm f/1.4L II USM lens, f/4.5, 24mm, 1/1000sec, ISO125
A lighthouse at sunset on Khao Lak beach, north of Phuket in Thailand.
Who were some photographers you looked up to?
Some of my favorite photographers aren’t necessarily travel photographers. I love Sally Mann and Sarah Moon, Robert Frank, Martin Parr, Daido Moriyama, Alex Webb, Peter Beard, Nan Goldin, and Nobuyoshi Araki, to name but a few.
EOS 6D, EF35mm f/1.4L II USM lens, f/1.4, 35mm, 1/1000sec, ISO160
A staff in what ao dai at Le Longanier restaurant in Cai Be, in the Mekong Delta of southern Vietnam.
Tell us about the very first assignment you shot.
I think my first real assignment was for The Wall Street Journal. I definitely didn’t do a great job on it. It was a travel piece on Hanoi, Vietnam, centered around certain streets in the Old Quarter. I think it had to do with how the old street names kind of told people what they sold and how they still sold some of the original things they were named after.
EOS 6D, EF35mm f/1.4L II USM lens, f/4.5, 35mm, 1/1000sec, ISO200
A small boat moves along the canal in downtown Otaru, Japan.
We noticed that you shoot a lot in Asia.
Well, I’ve lived in Southeast Asia for the past nine years, so I think it’s kind of inevitable that most of my photographs are from this region. When I first moved here, I lived in Hanoi, Vietnam. So most of my first images are from there.
I had just graduated from photography school, and the plan was to visit Southeast Asia and stay for about three months total. That was nearly a decade ago.
EOS 6D, EF35mm f/1.4L II USM lens, f/1.4, 35mm, 1/250sec, ISO500
Fruit and vegetable sellers at the local market in downtown Panjim, India.
Did you have problems getting around/communicating?
Absolutely. A lot of my first year in Vietnam was spent simply learning the language and personally, learning how to live in a foreign country. It was exciting, but also at times frustrating and lonely. But I think that’s something we all deal with when we encounter a new place and experience new ways of living and understanding the world. In the end though, of course it brings a larger and fuller understanding of these different cultures.
EOS 6D, EF35mm f/1.4L II USM lens, f/1.4, 35mm, 1/3200sec, ISO320
A Japanese woman in a green kimono in the middle of a green garden in Kyushu, Japan.
How do you prepare for an overseas shoot? Take us through your process.
It almost feels like clockwork at this point, but generally I try to keep up on regional news and stories happening both in my immediate region and the surrounding Asia-Pacific countries. I try to keep abreast of visa regulations and new things happening around Southeast Asia as well. And also making sure I have enough clean socks and underwear.
EOS 5D Mark II, EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM lens, f/2.8, 24mm, 1/400sec, ISO400
Sunset at a small winery in the mountains near Inle Lake in Shan State, Myanmar.
What is your set up like?
I’m a pretty simple photographer in terms of gear. On most shoots I just have my trusty EOS 5D Mark IV and a few lenses.
I’m all about prime lenses. These days, I’m shooting mostly with the EF35mm f/1.4L II USM lens and the EF50mm f/1.2L USM lens for my travel work. I’ve tried to take away most of the really wide angle lenses in my arsenal, just to change things up a bit. I used to shoot really wide, and I felt like it was becoming a bit of a crutch. Limiting my lenses also forces me to look at scenes differently, to make things work within a very specific rubric I’ve created for myself.
Do you have a go-to kit when you travel for overseas assignments?
My simplest go-to kit, and one that I’ve taken on several recent assignments is my EOS 5D Mark IV with the EF35mm f/1.4L II USM lens attached to it. Nothing else. It’s part creative challenge and part proof that we don’t actually need all of these bells and whistles to make good images. Just our brains.
EOS 6D, EF35mm f/1.4L II USM lens, f/2.2, 35mm, 1/160sec, ISO800
A portrait of a young girl in a traditional family ger in Khovsgol Lake in northern Mongolia.
Tell us about a crazy experience or fond memory you have while you were shooting overseas.
Oh wow. There are honestly so many. I have nothing but fond memories of all of my travels, but what currently sticks out most in my mind would have to be a recent trip to Mongolia, trekking on horseback through the taiga forests in the north and staying in makeshift tents and huts in the middle of a verdant hidden valley near the Siberian border with a group of reindeer herders. We slept on wooden planks with thin blankets and had to be warmed by wood-burning stoves centered in our teepees. We bathed in rivers that were running off of melting snows further up the mountains. Dogs ran through the fields as reindeer and horses grazed on the horizons. There were wild flowers everywhere. It was as close to paradise as I think I’ll ever get.
EOS 6D, EF35mm f/1.4L II USM lens, f/1.4, 35mm, 1/2500sec, ISO250
A young man on a horse in the late afternoon on the vast steppes of northern Mongolia.
Travel photography is one of the most searched topics of photography, and we know many people who want to be travel photographers. In your opinion, what does it take to become one?
I often wonder how I became one myself, especially since I don’t think my images always feed into the stereotypical version of a travel photographer—they can be a bit darker and moodier, a bit rougher around the edges and more difficult to read into. I came from a more documentary and fine art background, so maybe it’s those very differences that have managed to set me apart.
My advice for anyone trying to get into travel photography would be: get out there. In any way you can. Save your money. Take a trip. Don’t burden yourself with gear; stay light and mobile. Get yourself into awkward situations. Throw away your lens caps and always have your camera on you, ready to fire at a moment’s notice. Be nice and warm and inviting and understanding in different scenarios. Take nothing for granted, especially the warmth and hospitality of others. Smile a lot. And laugh. Those are gestures that cross all boundaries.
What sort of personality/temperament do you think one needs?
You need to be able to find comfort in uncomfortable situations. Nobody likes a grumpy complainer, even when things seem miserable. Grin and bear it. Smile. Say yes to everything and laugh and get back up when you get kicked down.
EOS 6D, EF35mm f/1.4L II USM lens, f/5, 35mm, 1/200sec, ISO200
Morning yoga beneath Ly Thai To statue on Hoam Kiem Lake in downtown Hanoi, Vietnam.
Does having a background in some other genre of photography help?
I certainly think it helped me in setting myself apart from other photographers. We have a tendency—in photography and art and politics and almost everything else—to surround ourselves with like-minded people and ideas. We get into a bit of an echo chamber and doing that sets off a chain reaction at times, where the same ideas and imagery are just being batted around, reflected and reflected and reflected. So get out of that. If you want to be a travel photographer, don’t spend your days looking at travel photography. Look at paintings, listen to weird music, read science fiction. Find something that feels totally opposite to what you want to do, and find the connections there.
What are some kinds of challenges one can expect going into this genre of photography?
It’s tempting to say that the field is getting crowded and the work isn’t as good as it used to be, but I don’t think that’s entirely true and I think it’s a very negative way of looking at things. The major challenge I face is simply being away from home so much. It’s a challenge to keep relationships and friendships when you feel so ungrounded most of the time.
EOS 5D Mark III, EF35mm f/1.4L II USM lens, f/5, 35mm, 1/3200sec, ISO400
A young Burmese man walks along a colorful foot path in downtown Yangon, Myanmar.
How helpful are social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook in getting exposure?
I don’t pay too much attention to these platforms. I don’t have a Facebook account, and I don’t really curate my Instagram feed to conform to any certain standards of photography. I love Instagram and Twitter and other platforms like them, and I think they’re important for getting your work out there, but they also suck away our time and energy. I’d much rather be outside.
Have you ever gotten work through these platforms?
Yeah I’ve gotten one or two jobs from social media, but nothing that has changed my life. I still get most of my work through industry connections and people simply spreading my name around. Plus, targeted mailers and face-to-face meetings when I’m in New York or Hong Kong or any big city. It’s all well and good to think that editors are spending their days scouring social media for the Next Big Thing, but I would think that most of them are too busy just trying to do their jobs in an industry that is becoming more and more complicated and diverse and understaffed. We’ve become too obsessed with likes and retweets and going viral. These are not good measures of our worth, as humans or photographers.
Having a large and diverse online presence is absolutely essential these days, and social media is a large part of that presence. There are more and more ways to show art and photography these days, and it would be silly to not try to take at least some advantage of them. I think problems arise when we start paying more attention to our followers than to the work we’re creating. We’re entering into a time of complete oversharing and I for one, still love a bit of mystery in my life.
Finally, do you have any tips or advice for those who want to become a travel photographer?
Don’t spend all of your money on camera gear. Spend it on planes, trains, and automobiles. And hotels. And vaccinations, good food and insect repellant. Don’t forget a nice sturdy bag and some comfortable shoes.
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Aaron Joel Santos
Aaron Joel Santos is an award-winning editorial and travel photographer based in Southeast Asia. He works with some of the world’s top companies, agencies, and publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Vice, TIME, Smithsonian, Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, and numerous others. He's a big fan of eating his way across the world, and enjoys collecting old film cameras, books, wooden boxes, and 60s psychedelia.